Science fairs aren’t open to everyone

President Obama reacts as Joey Hudy of Phoenix, Arizona, launches a marshmallow during the 2012 White House Science Fair. Photo: Kevin Lamarque, Reuters

At this week’s White House Science Fair, President Obama showcased young scientists and inventors and urged girls to pursue STEM fields. “We’re not going to succeed when we’ve got half the team on the bench,” he said. “Especially when it’s the smarter half.”

“Diversity is important,” said Jo Handelsman, associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “We need more STEM workers, and we need to recruit the best talent of the world, and some of the talent will come from people who have not been traditionally involved in STEM.”

Science fairs have “became an exercise in privilege,”writes Carl Zimmer, a science writer, in STAT. Girls aren’t excluded. But children who don’t have educated parents and access to high-quality labs won’t go very far.

Veronica was able to carry out her science fair experiment in a Yale lab.

Told her seventh-grade science fair experiment required expert supervision, the author’s daughter was able to use a Yale lab. Photo: Carl Zimmer

His daughter decided to compare different ways to clean a toothbrush for her seventh-grade science fair.  She planned to brush with a new toothbrush,  clean it with water, lemon juice or vinegar, then see how much bacteria grew on a Petri dish.

Her proposal required filling out “an avalanche of confusing paperwork,” Zimmer writes. It was considered “so potentially dangerous that Veronica would have to carry it out under the supervision of a trained expert, who would first have to submit a detailed risk assessment.”

Most kids would have quit there. But Zimmer knew a Yale microbiologist who agreed to let the seventh-grader work in his lab. She ended up winning an honorable mention at the stair fair.

“When you look over the projects that win the Google Science Fair and the Intel Science Talent Search these days, it’s clear that they’re mostly the products of very bright, motivated students lucky enough to work in university labs where they can take advantage of expertise and equipment,” Zimmer writes. Kids without those connections are out of luck.

Much-praised P-TECH faces problems

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan visit a classroom at P-TECH.
President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited P-TECH in 2013. Photo: Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty Images

Pathways in Technology Early College High School — P-TECH — in Brooklyn was praised by President Obama in his 2013 State of the Union speech. At P-TECH, “a collaboration between New York Public Schools and City University of New York and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering,” Obama said. “We need to give every American student opportunities like this.”

The “9-14” model is spreading quickly, writes Anya Kamenetz on NPR. But, now in its fifth year, P-TECH is struggling to meet its ambitious goals, internal e-mails show.

The school, which does not screen students, primarily enrolls black and Latino males. All students are expected to earn a high school diploma and an associate degree in computer systems technology or electromechanical engineering technology  in six years.

P-TECH students

P-TECH students

In fall 2014, 21 percent of grades earned by P-TECH students in City College of Technology (City Tech) classes were D’s and F’s. C is the minimum passing grade in technical majors.

Internal emails show P-TECH and IBM are trying to get CUNY to “bend” the rules for students with low grades, writes Kamenetz. “In one email, P-TECH’s principal, Rashid Davis, called the City University of New York’s academic policies ‘elitist’.”

City Tech has maintained standards but now gives students an early warning of how they’re doing, provost Diane August told NPR. Struggling students, their parents and a high school staffer meet at midterm with the college instructor. “Is more work needed? Is this hopeless? If so, can we withdraw [taking a W instead of a low grade] and have them try again? If it’s not hopeless, can we make a plan and maybe have them drop one course so they can focus harder on others?”

The D/F rate has fallen to 14 percent. By June, about 1 in 4 of students who enrolled as ninth graders five years ago will have completed an associate degree, in addition to their high school diploma, according to IBM.

That seems like a great outcome with a year to go to get more students to an associate degree.

U.S. lags in preschool, college graduation

The U.S. is falling behind the world in college-educated workers, concludes a OECD report on education in 46 countries. “The U.S. hasn’t backslid, but other countries have made big gains,”  OECD Education Director Andreas Schleicher said.

In the past, the U.S. ranked second in the world in the percentage of adults with postsecondary vocational or academic education. Today, the U.S. has slipped to fifth position.

South Korea leads the world: nearly 70 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds are college educated. Only 46 percent of young U.S. workers have earned a certificate or degree.

The U.S. is not on track to meet President Obama’s goal of leading the world in college-educated workers by 2020. College graduation rates are falling. according to a new report. Among students who started college in 2009, the year Obama launched his college campaign, only 53 percent had graduated in six years.

College enrollment rates have fallen since 2008, especially for low-income students. In 2013, just 46 percent of low-income high school graduates enrolled in two-year and four-year institutions, according to Census data.

More than 70 percent of young children attend preschool in OECD countries, compared to 41 percent of U.S. 3-year-olds and 66 percent of 4-year-olds. “It’s an area where the U.S. trails quite a bit behind,” said Schleicher.

Endless testing? High stakes? Not really

U.S. schools don’t test as much as people think and the stakes “aren’t really that high,” argues Kevin Huffman, a New America fellow, in a Washington Post commentary.

“In an apparent about-face from his administration’s education policy over the past seven years,” President Obama said last week he wants to “fix” over-testing, writes Huffman. The administration wants to limit testing to 2 percent of classroom time.

Testing averages 1.6 percent of class time, according to a Center for American Progress analysis. In Tennessee, where Huffman was education commissioner, state-mandated tests took seven to 10 hours per student per year, less than 1 percent of class time.

“Where students spend too much time taking tests, local schools and districts — not federal or state policies — tend to be the culprits,” he adds.

Due to federal pressure, more states now evaluate teachers based partially on their students’ test scores. All use “multiple measures” and “nearly all teachers perform at or above expectations.”

When schools are evaluated, “significant interventions” are targeted at the bottom 5 percent of campuses, he writes.

“Many schools spend too much time on mind-numbing test prep, sitting kids at their desks and going over endless multiple-choice questions,” Huffman concedes. There’s little evidence it improves scores.

Free college

Where will Malia go to college?

President Obama has told his 17-year-old daughter, Malia, “not to stress too much about having to get into one particular college,” he said last month. “Just because it’s not some name-brand, famous, fancy school doesn’t mean that you’re not going to get a great education there.”

Malia Obama wore a Stanford T-shirt last summer while biking with her father at Martha's Vineyard. Photo:  Nicholas Kamm, AFP

First Daughter Malia Obama wore a Stanford T-shirt while biking with her father at Martha’s Vineyard last summer. Photo: Nicholas Kamm, AFP

Malia Obama, a senior at the elite Sidwell Friends School, may be “the nation’s most eligible 2016 college applicant,” notes the New York Times.

So far, she’s “toured six of the eight Ivies — Brown, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale — as well as Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley. She has also visited New York University, Tufts, Barnard and Wesleyan.”

They’re all “name-brand, famous, fancy” schools. But she doesn’t really need a safety school.

Equity or bureaucracy?

The Obama administration’s new “education equity initiative” is more likely to produce “a blizzard of paperwork than to improve the education of minority children,” writes R. Shep Melnick, a Boston College professor, in Education Next

In a 37-page “Dear Colleague” letter, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) demands “that each school district provide a detailed accounting of resources available to schools with varying racial demographics,” writes Melnick.

Cited in the DCL’s 63 footnotes are studies indicating that targeting large sums to high-quality programs can help disadvantaged children. But the letter virtually ignores a key question: what constitutes a high-quality program?

School leaders face a choice, he writes.

. . . they can devote abundant time and money to collecting the information that OCR demands, massaging the data to make themselves look good, and shifting money around here and there to show they are making “progress.” (For instance, the quickest way to appease OCR will be to increase the number of AP courses available to minority students, regardless of whether this is the school’s most pressing need.)

On the other hand, schools can call OCR’s bluff. They can say, “We . . . prefer to spend money on teachers than on accountants.”

Districts that lose federal funds for non-compliance can go to federal court, where they’re very likely to win, writes Melnick. They could overturn this “Dear Colleague” letter and earlier letters on sexual harassment, programs for English language learners and school discipline.

Obama hits campus ‘coddling,’ but will he act?

President Obama called for open debate on campus at a Des Moines forum yesterday.

College students don’t need protection from different viewpoints, said President Obama at a Des Moines forum.

President Obama criticized political correctness on college campuses at a Des Moines town hall on college affordability, reports Vox.

“I don’t agree that (students) . . . have to be coddled and protected from different points of view,” said the president, who’s apparently read The Coddling of the American Mind in The Atlantic.

I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with that either.

. . . anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with ‘em. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, “You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.” That’s not the way we learn either.

“If Obama is actually opposed to the new scourge of political correctness on college campuses, he could prove his dedication to the cause by directing the Education Department to relax its relentless Title IX inquisition,” writes Robby Soave on Reason‘s Hit & Run. Federal “guidance” obliges universities to censor, he writes.

Hans Bader has more on how Obama’s Education Department has used anti-discrimination law to pressure schools and colleges to restrict free speech on campus.

Will college pay? Check the Scorecard

President Obama’s plan to rate colleges on affordability and success rates collapsed. But the Education Department’s new College Scorecard provides useful information for families wondering what a particular college costs by family income and what percentage of students earn a degree and begin paying off their student debts within three years.

Most intriguing, the Scorecard uses IRS data to show enrollees’ median annual earnings 10 years after enrollment and the percentage who earn more than the average high school graduate, about $25,000 a year, six years after entering college. The information includes dropouts and graduates.
PHOTO: In an undated photo, The College Board offers data and information about colleges to prospective students.

At a quarter of American colleges, the majority of students who got federal financial aid end up earning less than $25,000 per year a full decade after they first enrolled,” reports Libby Nelson on Vox.

The Scorecard can track only students who received federal aid, but that’s 70 percent of the total.

Earnings aren’t reported by program or major, masking the variations between different degrees at the same school.

The Scorecard makes it “easier to figure out which schools are a waste of money,”  writes Jordan Weissmann on Slate.

PayScale is using the federal data to calculate the 20-year return on investment at different colleges for students in various family income quintiles.

I’m sure students and parents will find the Scorecard useful. But it has its limits. The highly selective colleges have strong graduation rates and graduates who do well in the workplace, though earnings are lower at liberal arts colleges, higher at technical schools. The less selective schools have much lower graduation rates. Their former students and graduates earn less and have more trouble repaying their debts.

Does an A+ student become a high earner because he chose Georgia Tech over Duke? Does the B- student become a low-earning dropout because she chose the not-very-selective state university over the not-very-selective private college?

I’m not sure C- students will use the Scorecard. If they do, they’ll see that the sort of college they can get into has very low graduation rates and low earnings payoffs. They’ll see two-year vocational degrees, but won’t see vocational certificates.

‘Free’ college may not lead to more degrees

President Obama has called for guaranteeing two years of tuition-free higher education to all Americans. That will raise enrollment, writes Adela Soliz, a Brookings researcher. But free college won’t lead to more degrees unless it’s linked to performance, she predicts.

Soliz suggests using “financial aid dollars to reward students for earning a particular GPA, completing a certain number of credits, or demonstrating other behaviors that may increase student persistence and completion, such as meeting regularly with an advisor.”

Community college already is affordable, writes Jack Soloway on Reason‘s Hit & Run. Subsidizing tuition will incentivize colleges to raise tuition; quality-control measures will require more compliance staffers.